Seward woman fights to save Jesse Lee home but says time is running out
A woman who grew up in Seward is leading the fight to save the Jesse Lee home, but time is running out.
Dorene Lorenz is a member of the nonprofit, Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, which purchased the building and property of the former boarding school from the City of Seward in 2014.
The home is rich with Alaska history. It opened its doors in Seward in 1926 as a home for displaced children from around the state, many of whom were Alaska Native. Jesse Lee resident Benny Benson designed what would become the Alaska state flag there, which flew proudly over the facility for many years. In 1964, following the Alaska earthquake, the home was vacated and the program moved to Anchorage. The building has stood empty ever since.
Lorenz said the nonprofit has plans to restore the home and turn the facility into a charter school that would teach leadership skills to students from around the state in a one-semester program. She said the nonprofit was about 80 percent through designing their curriculum when it hit a roadblock-- they stopped receiving funding from the state.
Records show the Alaska Legislature has granted about $7 million towards the project since 2009. But, Lorenz said the nonprofit only received about half that amount and used it to stabilize the building, pay for architectural and engineering studies, as well as design curriculum for the school. She said when the state budget got tight, legislators pulled back funding and put most of the rest of the money towards essential services. Lorenz said that was okay with the group at the time, but there is now about $1 million remaining and they need the money. She's afraid if they don't get it, the building could be torn down.
Officials in Seward say that could very well happen. As part of the deal for selling the property cheaply to the nonprofit, the city had several requirements, including doing some environmental work on the property. None of which have been met.
"We haven't been able to access funds since we purchased the building, so we haven't been able to do any of those items," said Lorenz. "And now the deadline is coming up where if we don't get the money this session, we have no means to prosecute those things, and our contract with the City of Seward says if they get the building back they are demolishing it."
City officials don't dispute that. Assistant City Manager Ron Long said the contract requires the property to go back to the city if the requirements aren't met within five years. But, he pointed out the nonprofit still has a year to get the work done.
"The property is entirely theirs until June of 2019," said Long. "The city has no authority or desire to do anything with something that's not ours."
Long said the city has asked the legislature to put the remaining $1 million in an account that the city could use to do environmental clean-up if it does acquire the property in a year. He said the city would have no choice but to develop the land, which would mean tearing the existing structures down.
"As to preserving the building, that's a very long and very expensive process, and the longer it sits the more expensive it becomes," said Long. "And that's not something within our capacity as a city to do."
Lorenz said she plans to continue fighting for more funding.
"We just want some funding to make sure that we can maintain this building, which isn't a lot of money, and it isn't a lot of effort until such time that the economy turns around. If this building gets destroyed we are losing an important part of our history."
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